The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge: Part 1

Edi­tor’s Note: This month, MIT Open Learning’s Peter B. Kauf­man has pub­lished The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge, a book that takes a his­tor­i­cal look at the pow­er­ful forces that have pur­pose­ly crip­pled our efforts to share knowl­edge wide­ly and freely. His new work also maps out what we can do about it. In the com­ing days, Peter will be mak­ing his book avail­able through Open Cul­ture by pub­lish­ing three short essays along with links to cor­re­spond­ing sec­tions of his book. Today, you can find his short essay “The Mon­ster­verse” below, and mean­while read/download the first chap­ter of his book here. You can pur­chase the entire book online.

The Mon­ster­verse – what exact­ly is it?  Like Sauron and his min­ions from Mor­dor in The Lord of the Rings, like Sheev Pal­pa­tine and the armies of the Galac­tic empire from Star Wars, like Lord Volde­mort and his hench­men the Death Eaters in Har­ry Pot­ter, it’s the col­lec­tive force of evil, one that strives to shut down human progress, free­dom, jus­tice, the spread of knowl­edge –the dis­sem­i­na­tion of (let us just say it) open cul­ture.  It’s the sub­ject of the first chap­ter of my book, The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge – and its incar­na­tions have been with us for thou­sands of years.

In 1536, which is when the book begins, it found its embod­i­ment in Jacobus Lato­mus, who over­saw the tri­al and exe­cu­tion – by stran­gling and burn­ing at the stake – of a trans­la­tor and a priest named William Tyn­dale.  Lato­mus, who him­self was over­seen by Thomas More, who him­self was over­seen by Hen­ry VIII (with Pope Clement VII in a sup­port­ing role), chore­o­graphed Tyndale’s for­mal degra­da­tion, such that a cou­ple dozen apos­tolic inquisi­tors and the­olo­gians, uni­ver­si­ty rec­tors and fac­ul­ty, lawyers and privy coun­cilors – “heresy-hunters,” as his biog­ra­ph­er calls them – led him out of his prison cell in pub­lic and in his priest­ly rai­ment to a high plat­form out­doors where oils of anoint­ment were scraped sym­bol­i­cal­ly from his hands, the bread and wine of the Eucharist sit­u­at­ed next to him and then just as quick­ly removed, and then his vest­ments “cer­e­mo­ni­al­ly stripped away,” so that he would find him­self, and all would see him as, no longer a priest.  Death came next.  This schol­ar and poly­math to whom, it is now known, we owe as much as we owe William Shake­speare for our lan­guage, this lone man sought and slain by church and king and holy Roman emper­or – his ini­tial stran­gling did not go well, so that when he was sub­se­quent­ly lit on fire, and the flames first lapped at his feet and up his legs, lashed tight to the stake, he came to, and, while burn­ing alive in front of the crowd of reli­gious lead­ers and so-called jus­tices (some sev­en­teen tri­al com­mis­sion­ers) who had so sum­mar­i­ly sent Tyn­dale to his death and gath­ered to watch it, live, he cried out, less to the crowd, it would seem, than to Anoth­er: “Lord! Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes!”

What did Tyn­dale do?  He believed that the struc­ture of com­mu­ni­ca­tion dur­ing his time was bro­ken and unfair, and with a core, unwa­ver­ing focus, he sought to make it so that the main body of knowl­edge in his day could be accessed and then shared again by every man alive. He engaged in an unpar­al­leled act of cod­ing (not for noth­ing do we speak of com­put­er pro­gram­ming “lan­guages”), work­ing through the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Ara­ma­ic of the Bible’s Old, then New, Tes­ta­ments to bring all of its good books – from Gen­e­sis 1 to Rev­e­la­tion 22—into Eng­lish for every­day read­ers. He is report­ed to have said, in response to a ques­tion from a priest who had chal­lenged his work, a priest who read the Bible only in Latin: “I will cause a boy that dri­veth the plough shall know more of the Scrip­ture than thou dost.” And he worked with the dis­tri­b­u­tion tech­nolo­gies of his time – the YouTubes, web­sites, and Twit­ters back then – by con­nect­ing per­son­al­ly with book design­ers, paper sup­pli­ers, print­ers, boat cap­tains, and horse­men across six­teenth-cen­tu­ry Europe to bring the knowl­edge and the book that con­tained it into the hands of the peo­ple.

It wasn’t easy. In Tyndale’s time, popes and kings had decreed, out of con­cern for keep­ing their pow­er, that the Bible could exist and be read and dis­trib­uted “only in the assem­bly of Latin trans­la­tions” that had been com­plet­ed by the monk Saint Jerome in approx­i­mate­ly 400 CE. The penal­ties for chal­leng­ing the law were among the most severe imag­in­able, for such vio­la­tions rep­re­sent­ed a panoply of civ­il trans­gres­sions and an entire com­plex­i­ty of here­sies. In tak­ing on the church and the king – in his effort sim­ply and sole­ly to trans­late and then dis­trib­ute the Bible in Eng­lish – Tyn­dale con­front­ed “the great­est power[s] in the West­ern world.” As he “was trans­lat­ing and print­ing his New Tes­ta­ment in Worms,” his lead­ing biog­ra­ph­er reminds us, “a young man in Nor­wich was burned alive for the crime of own­ing a piece of paper on which was writ­ten the Lord’s Prayer in Eng­lish.” The Bible had been inac­ces­si­ble in Latin for a thou­sand years, this biog­ra­ph­er writes, and “to trans­late it for the peo­ple became heresy, pun­ish­able by a soli­tary lin­ger­ing death as a heretic; or, as had hap­pened to the Cathars in south­ern France, or the Hus­sites in Bohemia and Lol­lards in Eng­land, offi­cial and bloody attempts to exter­mi­nate the species.”

Yuck­adoo, the Mon­ster­verse, but very much still with us.  The stran­gle­holds are real.  And Tyndale’s suc­ces­sors in the fight to free knowl­edge include many free­dom fight­ers and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies – going up against the forces that seek to con­strain our growth as a soci­ety.  Were Tyn­dale alive today, he would won­der about the state of copy­right law and its over­reach; the per­va­sive estate of sur­veil­lance cap­i­tal­ism; the sweep­ing pow­ers of gov­ern­ment to see and inter­fere in our com­mu­ni­ca­tion.  And he would won­der why the seem­ing­ly pro­gres­sive forces on the side of free­dom today – uni­ver­si­ties, muse­ums, libraries, archives – don’t fight more against infor­ma­tion oppres­sion.  Tyn­dale would rec­og­nize that the health pan­dem­ic, the eco­nom­ic cri­sis, the polit­i­cal vio­lence we face today, are all the result of an infor­ma­tion dis­or­der, one that relies on squelch­ing knowl­edge and pro­mot­ing the dark­est forms of igno­rance for its suc­cess.  How we come to grips with that chal­lenge is the num­ber-one ques­tion for our time.  Dis­cov­er­ing new paths to defeat­ing it – over­com­ing the Dark Lords, destroy­ing the Hor­crux­es, final­ly har­ness­ing the Force – is the sub­ject of the next two arti­cles, and of the rest of the book.

Peter B. Kauf­man works at MIT Open Learn­ing and is the author of The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge.  This is the first of three arti­cles.

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  • Dominic says:

    Good morn­ing,
    Open Cul­ture thank you all very much for cre­at­ing, con­tribut­ing to and main­tain­ing this site. i have not con­tributed finan­cial­ly to Open Cul­ture yet, but, know that you are on my list of orga­ni­za­tions i wish to sup­port. Though i have been tempt­ed in the past to com­ment, this is my first time con­tribut­ing a com­ment.
    i feel very for­tu­nate to have found this site, how i do not recall. Pret­ty much every­thing found on this site is of inter­est to me and takes up a lot of time read­ing and watch­ing.
    In read­ing this arti­cle i am remind­ed of the var­i­ous high­ly secured ware­hous­es full of prime sources of infor­ma­tion like the Vat­i­can. If this infor­ma­tion was ever in my pos­ses­sion i won­der if i would have the time or patients to sift through it. But, if it is out there like this site i believe that if i am meant to encounter it, void track­ers like cook­ies, i will encounter it, but only if it is avail­able. Free the infor­ma­tion and let it be for the peo­ple.

  • Susie says:

    Good stuff. I can’t think ofany more impor­tant quest than this one.

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